Moon water aids space exploration

The discovery of large quantities of water on the moon will have very significant implications for human space exploration, according to an expert at KingstonUniversity.


The recent findings by NASA were reportedly made after researchers examined data from three separate missions to the moon.


Dr Chris Welch, an astronautics and space systems expert at KingstonUniversity, said the findings could transform work for astronauts.


‘Scientists thought they knew fairly accurately what the surface of the moon was like and these results show that they didn’t – or at least not completely,’ he said.


‘Finding so much more water could make living on the moon much easier in the future. Water is very heavy and to launch it into space would be difficult and expensive.


‘If there is water on the moon – in whatever form – then we have a potential reservoir that could be used for drinking, or to make into hydrogen and oxygen that could be used as rocket propellant. Also, of course, we could use the oxygen to breathe.’


Welch explained that current thinking is that the water comes from particles in the solar wind, which is emitted by – and streams away from – the sun continuously.


The wind strikes the soil on the surface of the moon, which has no magnetic field or atmosphere to protect it, and stimulates chemical reactions in which oxygen atoms in the soil combine with hydrogen nuclei to form water and hydroxyl molecules, he said.


‘The water is thought to exist as a very fine film covering the particles of the lunar soil, or as groups of molecules, not as a liquid,’ Welch said. ‘You couldn’t drink it in its current form, but if extracted, then you certainly could. It has been suggested that one cubic metre of soil might provide one litre of water.’


Earlier estimates suggested that there could be more than 300 million tonnes of water ice on the moon and the new results suggest that it could be even more, Welch said. The water is not in the form as we know it on Earth.


‘The water is on the main lunar surface, which is slightly damp soil and rocks,’ he said. ‘These are still much dryer than any on Earth though.


‘At the poles of the moon, it is thought that water ice may exist in craters that have been in shadow for millions of years and which act as ‘cold traps’ for water vapour that might arrive, either from cometary impacts, or now from the rest of the surface.’


While groundbreaking, Welch does not believe that the findings show there is, or could once have been, life on the moon. He now thinks further research is needed.


‘There need to be more detailed science missions, preferably with astronauts landing on the moon, to analyse the soil in space,’ he said.


Welch added that on 9 October, NASA LCROSS spacecraft is due to carry out two impacts on polar craters to see if it can throw up evidence of water ice.